Just like many other international students, I took the winter break as a chance to go back to my home country. Supposedly, coming home after a long time studying abroad must feel like a refreshing welcome that is comfortable and familiar… right? Or is it?!
In mainstream stories, the hardest thing about a long-term journey abroad might be referring to leaving your whole life behind – your comfort zones, your family, a lot of familiar places and feelings – to welcome a new one. Unfortunately, we talk a lot less about how difficult it is to see that the home, the city, and the whole life you are returning to are no longer the same. As the world we left keeps moving forward, we also have transformed intellectually and personally by adopting new habits, values, and ideas which made us successfully function in a culture entirely different from our own. Consequently, this situation often invokes a sense of loss of self-identity; it is called a Reverse Culture Shock. Reverse culture shock refers to the condition where you’re learning how your identity fits back into your initial culture after returning home from study abroad. In this blog, I have gathered 5 anonymous stories about the struggles of being back home after living abroad. The words written here are the exact words from the sender (original text or a voice note transcript) in the hope to deliver raw emotions and feelings upon returning home.
Story #1: “…as I stood in the congregation that day. I realized I have no connection to the people, the Church or God. I did not belong; I felt like an exile. The worst part of it was I exiled myself (by opening myself up to the world).”
I am from St. Maarten, but I was raised Haitian (since my parents are from Haiti). Both my parents were strict and extremely religious my entire life, and I did not get a chance to immerse myself in St. Maarten’s culture. I ate different foods, had different holidays and sometimes spoke a foreign language. But here’s the catch, not only was I Haitian, but I was a devoted Christian. Many people on the island are Christian but do not live by the Bible as my Church did. They were allowed to wear pants, jewelry, makeup, extensions and get their ears pierced. I wasn’t. I wore skirts (my entire life) and was not allowed to walk home in jeans or pants. Plus, since my parents were so strict, I could not go anywhere after dark. I was, basically, the odd one out. Of course, I was not the only one, but no one else like me went to my school, so no one understood why I lived the way I lived. So, since I did not fit in with the locals on the island, I had my community — the (very religious) Haitian community. I loved God, Jesus, and the whole shablam, but performative identity was a big thing. I had to be a perfect Christian. I had to show that I was a believer. I had to follow all the rules, the doctrines and refute the outside world and its people— the locals. So, in a sense, my Church also forbade me to interact with my other culture.
Fast forward, I moved to the Netherlands in 2019, and never in my life have I ever been exposed to atheists. There were so many of them. Everyone was so outspoken and hardly religious. It was blasphemous. Men dressed up as women, men riddled with tattoos and girls with piercings. I was in shock. I knew when I left the Church that there would be people lost in sin, but I did not believe them until I saw it for myself. However, as I immersed myself in the Dutch way of life, my mind started to open. It was like an epiphany. People would ask what I like to do, and I would say I like going to Church. And when asked what else, I couldn’t figure out whether or not there was anything else. That’s when I needed to educate myself out of my small-minded space. I learned about the different people around me, along with their beliefs. And I accepted their differences by finding similarities between them and me. After a while, I realized my beliefs were not my own. There was no genuine base for my love for Christianity or my Church. I was forced to love them.
There was trauma in that love, and I decided to let go of my belief and the Church. When I went back home to St. Maarten, I was forced to attend Church again. Of course, my family did not know that I was no longer a believer, but to satisfy them, I went along with the whole charade. And as I stood in the congregation that day. I realized I have no connection to the people, the Church or God. I did not belong; I felt like an exile. The worst part of it was I exiled myself (by opening myself up to the world).
WITH MY FAMILY: Vacationing in paradise wasn’t enough. I was not home; there was no place here for me. I constantly asked, ‘why am I feeling so detached?’ Everything was the same, yet different as I remembered. My mom, dad, cousin and brother were the same, but I was somehow different. I felt like I was not part of the family. It did not help that all the places where my stuff used to be were in boxes, my bed was dismantled, and my old clothes had a new owner — my mom.
Nothing there belonged to me. I felt restless, rejected, slept very little and started feeling depressed after a week (sadly, I had four more to go). When I asked my best friend who traveled with me whether she felt detached from the island, our community and her family, she responded with a hard ‘yes’. She said, ‘this is not my life; this is not my home. This is/was my past.’
This life was my past. I felt different because I am different. I am detached because, mentally and physically, I was detached and remained detached when I got back ‘home’. And when I eventually got back to the Netherlands, it felt like I could breathe again. I felt free again, away from religious oppression. I felt like my own person. I am my own home. Sadly, I am moving on from my past, and of course, I will visit, but I do not belong there anymore. I belong here (in the Netherlands). But I feel a clear sense of belonging with my long-term best friend and boyfriend.
Story #2: “… it led me to thinking: why do I think so much about a country that does not see me as its own anymore? […] I feel like a foreigner in the Netherlands, and I am treated like a foreigner in my home country. It reached a point where I feel like an outsider in my own family”
I still remember when I used to be very nationalistic. In many ways, I have thought of how I can blossom the name of my country and contribute to my country after acquiring knowledge from studying abroad. Before going to my story, I firstly want to share that those things aren’t because my life back there was amazing and I love it there, but because I was severely bullied. I want to be beyond whatever I was told by people who wronged me. This aspiration, however, did not age well. I don’t go back home very often, but when I do, I feel like I’m only reminded of why I left in the first place. There are a lot of things that have happened that question me, if I ever really belong to any place, country, even home.
My life in the Netherlands was filled with so much love and support I never thought I had back home, though it wasn’t perfect either. No matter how people say that I have integrated well, I will never be Dutch. The way I speak, the way I look, everything. So despite the not-so-flowery past in my home country, I still wish that it would be a home for me. But it is still not the case. The last time I went back home, I was asked “why is your [my native language] so good?”, or getting rejected with a local price because I don’t look and act local enough. Sometimes, I gaslight myself into thinking that those sayings are very minor, knowing that I am silently struggling with an identity crisis and feeling of belonging to a place where I feel less like a foreigner. It even gets harder when it comes to my old friends; there are numerous times when I feel like being questioned as I now have changed drastically; if I have been whitewashed, or with the local saying “like a peanut who forgets its shell.” With all these confusions, it led me to thinking: why do I think so much about a country that does not see me as its own anymore?
Lastly, I also want to share my struggle as a person who questions everything. This has become a huge problem for me in a lot of ways. Most parents or any older person do not like to be questioned and like to be treated nicely just because. I feel like I am never going to be the good obedient daughter that any parents would love to have (with my country’s cultural standard) with the type of person I am and have become; I am getting the impression that I am not the daughter that parents can rely on in their old age as I have become very independent and pursue individualism. I feel like an outsider in my own family: everyone in my family seems to share a common life excitement whereas I feel like nobody can fully understand the kind of struggles that lead me to cry every night, or the kind of happiness that brings me to tears of joy. They will never understand because they don’t see what I see in the Netherlands.
Story #3: “I just wish that there’s just some way for me to bring my identity abroad home. I just hope that I don’t feel suffocated when I do have to go home […] When a more religious family member sees me, they’re questioning my family’s pride and my family’s values.”
My experience of having reverse culture shock has been quite apparent to me since I started studying abroad. There’s just something about going home and the dreadfulness of having to assimilate back to what they expect of you; the way you are supposed to act and speak around, even just your family or friends. There’s always some sort of disconnection. I can’t connect with pop culture there or certain ideals that they still look up to, like very capitalistic mindsets or the need of climbing into a social ladder. Moreover, the feeling of being back in my old bedroom felt suffocating for some reason. I had to find ways to be alone and even being alone made me feel like “Gosh, I wish I’m back in New York” because I’m just not feeling it here. I think the only way to feel better to go back home is maybe having my own place and having a lot of independence just like I’ve had abroad, and also autonomy in my own daily life.
One thing also that made me feel iffy was the culture in Indonesia with how women are supposed to act. I don’t know how to explain it. I’m driving and then I got a call from my parents saying I should be home before it’s too late because I’m a girl and they’re scared that there’s some people that might steal from me while I’m driving. To me, it’s just so illogical or maybe I’m just delusional. It’s just some things that I don’t understand why I have to think about it. Some other things that I have gained over the past two years, such as certain hobbies that I started to pick up like going to a bar with friends, getting tattoos (I have a lot of them too), just grabbing a bike and going somewhere, or just silly things. And yet if I’m back in Indonesia, there are so many things that have to hide for some reason. If I wanna go out, my parents would say “that’s fine, but just don’t stand out from the crowd.” I almost feel like, gosh, like “how did I live this life so long?” I just wish that there’s just some way for me to bring my identity abroad home.
The last thing that I wanna address is gender and religion where I come from; the customs that I have to act like having to present myself in a more presentable manner. As a Muslim woman, I’m always on the edge; When a more religious family member sees me, they’re questioning my family’s pride and my family’s values of what they think the religion should be. It then all of a sudden became my family’s burden of how I’m supposed to act. It became really difficult for me to understand how I should react to these things too without being able to be myself and not get into a messy, troubled position.
Story #4: “The moment people start speaking a language you understand […] You start hearing and feeling the cultural anger and anxiousness that you were running away from.”
Six years into living abroad, one time I decided to visit my family in my home country between semesters. It has been a bit less than 3 years since my previous visit. I needed to take two flights, the first one was within Europe, and the second one was to my “home” city. I remember the moment. I started boarding the latter, the moment people started speaking a language you understand, you start hearing (and understanding) the bits and pieces of people’s lives that you were spared of as an expat throughout your time abroad. You start hearing and feeling the cultural anger and anxiousness that you were running away from.
Where I come from, military service is obligatory for males between the ages of 18 and 30, yet you can postpone the service if you study abroad. For one to travel, one is required to go through bureaucratic nightmares in order to get permission from the military to leave the country temporarily. The moment I landed home, I hugged my family, caught up with them, and ate my mother’s glorious meal. The next day at 7 am I already needed to start the undignified process of proving to the military institution that I meant no harm and that I only would like to leave the country again two weeks later to finish the master’s that I started.
I forgot how “dog eat dog” it was to drive a car towards my home town’s downtown. People were honking and screaming at each other left and right, some were prepared to make maneuvers just to scare or harm someone they didn’t like while driving. I was a nervous wreck, yet I managed to reach my destination without a scratch.
I then spent the following two weeks jumping from one authoritarian entity to another; governmental, military, even national security and secret services as the country was not politically stable and apparently even students who study abroad needed to go through screening before leaving the country.
It was a very stressful experience as I met people that were stuck for 3-6 months waiting for these approvals to come, yet I only had two weeks. Those two weeks I needed to be at least three different personalities, on a daily basis, to simply get a piece of paper that would allow me to go through the airport, and naturally, I needed to postpone my flight for 3 days as two weeks were not enough. It took me at least a week after that to recover from this mindset, and it taught me a thing or two about the direction my so-called “home country“ was headed.
Story #5: “… I was moving so much for the last 5 years. I started to have nightmares. I could have woken up in the middle of the night, with a feeling that I do not know where I am. And it scared me a lot. Where is my home? Who knows?
Recently I saw a TikTok. It was about a person who moved to study abroad and right now after his graduation, he decided to move back home because he didn’t really feel that he belongs in this country, but he is also worried, that if he returns home, “home won’t even feel like home anymore, because he has been away for too long, he might have changed because he has been through hell without no one knowing, family and relatives might expect his return, but deep down he knows, he is not the same person they used to know years ago, the fear of having to adapt in a country he was born in, grew up in, and he asks himself, is he making a right decision because he might not fit anymore. He was feeling like an outcast in a foreign country, would he feel the same in his own country too? This is how our lives are. Once we decide to study abroad, we will never fit in anywhere anymore. In the end, home is where you are at ease, at ease with your past, at ease with your present.
I have never thought about it honestly. I’d say I have never felt like coming back home. I found my home in the Netherlands. The only thing I’d say: I am planning my future, but I am also ready for unexpected situations that could possibly happen. We can’t really plan everything 100%, that’s what my experience taught me.
I moved abroad to the south of Europe when I was 16. It was a mutual agreement with my parents to try it out. I was that person who can really easily adapt to an unknown place. We were traveling with my parents really often, in addition to that all of my summers were full of camps, hikes, and trips abroad as well. I was not really patriotic I would say. I have never related myself 100% to the culture I was born in.
Well, I moved. After two years I graduated from high school. I decided to come back home for some time to see what’s “poppin’.” Well, shock hahaha. I knew that I was already a little bit different. People, culture, habits. It was so weird for me to be back. From the basic how people are greeting each other to what colors of clothes they are wearing. To be frank I was already feeling alienated in my home country before moving. And now. Crazy. I’d say I was lucky to meet amazing people with the same mindset as mine when I came back. After a year, I decided to move to the Netherlands. Best decision ever. I can’t say that it’s 100% perfect. But I am ready to travel and come back to the Netherlands.
Every time when I was coming home, everyone was like “yeah, you stop talking in English, what is your tongue, huh? (I was using a lot of English words in my native language), my style of clothes did not fit, my lifestyle, my routine. I am not even saying that people had to comment on everything that is happening in my life.)
Then I realized that I could not spend more than 3 weeks back home. I really do miss my family, but when I was talking to them. I was saying “I am sorry, I can’t, it’s too much for me. I am not mentally there, I am not ready to be back for a long time, talk to people in a ‘different language’ and I am not referring to my native language. We cannot understand each other because we are not on the same wavelength. We are different, and it’s difficult to realize but even my friends are not my friends anymore”.
The other thing that I have been facing because I was moving so much for the last 5 years. I started to have nightmares. I could have woken up in the middle of the night, with a feeling that I do not know where I am. And it scared me a lot. Where is my home? Who knows? I do think that I belong where I am right now. But I do not belong where I am coming from at all.
Written and gathered with love by Samara Jetta